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Vaccination Guest Post: Did I vaccinate my kids?

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This is part 1 of a series of guest posts on vaccination.  Please read the post on my vaccine history and the post introducing Dr. McColl before continuing.  And know that whatever your opinions on this topic, we’d probably get along great in real life so try not to let this become a dividing issue between us.  If you’re looking for information, this is good information from a man of integrity.  If your mind is made up, I’m not intent on changing it.  This will not be a format for debate, so feel free to write responses wherever it is you do your writing, but we won’t have a big dialogue in the comments section here.

Dr. McColl is going to be very straightforward with you—much more so than I would be.  His words are not my words, but I also haven’t cared for kids who are suffering from a vaccine preventable illness.  I might be a little more direct after that experience, too.

Guest post by Dr. Mark McColl

So Maralee has asked me to write a few posts concerning vaccines and specifically to respond to some questions generated by you, her audience.  I’m really pretty excited to get to do this.  I got to know her and her husband when they gave me the opportunity to care for their little boy after his adoption many years ago.  Since then we have struggled through some hard questions (both about vaccines and others) while they were here and we’ve had the chance to stay in touch after they moved.  I wish I had had the chance to care for all their kids but apparently we don’t need any insurance salesmen in Tennessee.

Vaccines and children’s vaccination schedules certainly are a hot topic in our modern culture.  Many people are diligently trying to make a wise decision about how to care for their children but are concerned about certain aspects of vaccinations.  Most parents I run into aren’t set against vaccines per se, as one might be set against communism or cocaine use, but rather are worried that in light of their children’s health and apparent lack of exposure to these diseases they are increasing the risk of injury in their children rather than preventing it.  Most parents tend to believe that their children start out at a rather low risk of death or disability from infections and therefore don’t need much protection.  We know this is true from surveys and polls about many different topics from cancer risk to car accidents.  We have a bias towards optimism, perhaps not for others, but certainly toward ourselves.

What I try to contend for my patients is an understanding of the truth.  I don’t want to paint a grim and dreary picture if that isn’t the truth nor do I want to whitewash a problem that really needs to be addressed.  I want to strike the appropriate course of reality.  We stand at a crossroads.  If we choose path A we have a certain set of risks and benefits and if we choose path B we have a different set of risks and benefits.  There is not an option to stand still and not pick a path.  By doing nothing we have chosen already.

So the first question I’ll address it the most personal.  Have I vaccinated my own children?  Yes, I have.  Completely.  I have two school age children.  I have a beautiful blonde haired, quick witted daughter who has more musical talent when she snores than I ever had my whole life.  I also have a bright and creative poet for a son with a bazooka as a right arm to whom I am forced to apologize regularly for the genetically defected hair line I’m sure he is going to get.  Every fall I bring home the FluMist and administer it to them myself at our kitchen table.  I also plan on vaccinating my daughter against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) when she is old enough.

So my cards are on the table now.  No shocker that I fully vaccinate my children.  But just for the record I vaccinate my children because my wife, who is also a pediatrician, and I have thought through the risks and benefits of each and every vaccine.  We didn’t vaccinate because of some party line put out by the CDC or the AAP.  It was a choice we made, intentionally, and not without great thought and prayer.  We made this decision in part due to the calculated understanding of risk and benefits of receiving the vaccinations versus remaining unvaccinated. We studied the literature.  We looked at the research. We also made this decision in part due to our experience in caring for children critically sick with diseases that could have been prevented by a vaccination at the right time.

I think paramedics and firefighters probably understand the value of  seat belts more than most.  Medicine is much the same way.  I’ve been in the emergency room with a young infant so sick he couldn’t even mount a fever.  He was about three degrees below normal temperature.  He didn’t even cry anymore.  In a Second or Third World country this child would have likely already been dead.  Nurses and techs were everywhere trying to get the right medicine to him when he needed it.  As I placed the spinal needle into his lower back to perform his lumbar puncture in order to test the fluid that floats around his brain for infection all I got back was this yellowish goo.  You know that stuff that comes out of an abscess when it’s opened up?  That’s what this child’s brain was floating in.  He had pneumococcal meningitis.

That same year as I was working in the Pediatric Intensive care unit we had a teenage girl come in with a severe headache, fever, and an odd spotted rash.  She had Neiserria bacteremia.  She didn’t develop the full blown brain infection that is often so devastating.  She had her infection mostly in the blood stream.  Neiserria likes to cause an exaggerated clotting disorder in the arteries.  This young lady ended up developing clots in the arteries to her arms and legs.  Without adequate blood flow her fingers, toes, and skin started to die.  In the end she required a four limb amputation to save her life from a disease that was vaccine preventable.

During the last 10 years of my practice, how many children have I cared for with a vaccine induced injury that was life threatening?  None.  Not that it doesn’t happen.  People have allergies to vaccines and if they are allergic to something they shouldn’t take it but sometimes you don’t know beforehand.  Sometimes the first bite of the peanut butter sandwich or the first bee sting is deadly, not usually, but sometimes.  So when I compare the rates of serious injury and death from vaccine preventable diseases to the rates of vaccine related injuries it’s an easy answer.

In my personal life my kids are vaccinated because we studied the truth.  We studied research and data.  We took care of the sick and dying knowing what they had was preventable.  We didn’t jump on a bandwagon or go with the flow.  It was a fully volitional decision.  I try and encourage my patients and their parents to make that their decision too.  I don’t want to be overbearing, argumentative, or an extortionist by holding something over them.  I want them to own their decision and be able to say “Yes, I believe I did the right thing for my child and here’s why”.  That’s what I can say about my decision to vaccinate.

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7 Comments

  1. Dr. McColl, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Maralee’s site. I especially appreciate actual examples of patients and illness you’ve seen. Your experience and knowledge translates into advice for patients, but sometimes we patients need a little more info in order to understand the advice. I look forward to reading more in coming days!

  2. I agree with Rebecca. I really enjoyed reading and hearing a professional’s side of why they vaccinate their own kids, and encourage other parents to do the same. A question: Do you find that most pediatricians and doctors vaccinate and encourage their patients to do the same? I know my own previous pediatrician (we moved out of state) sent a letter/talked to clients about vaccines and went so far as to say they would recommend other doctors if the parents wouldn’t vaccinate their children. Is that just an extreme, or is that fairly common?
    Sarah M

    • Hey Sarah, that’s a great question! I was just editing the post for tomorrow where Dr. McColl addresses how he handles that difference of opinion in his office. I don’t know how much how he handles it is the norm, but I’ll see if he’ll want to address that after tomorrow’s post. Thanks!

    • Sarah, that’s a good question. I don’t know of a primary care doctor who doesn’t vaccinate their own family and children. I think for those of us on the front line of communicable community diseases we see so much of it that we want to provide protection whenever able. Just like very few lung doctors smoke and most heart doctors exercise vigorously.

      In my own practice I have rarely had to discharge a patient over the vaccine question. We typically can come to an understanding or the differences in our views on vaccines is just one of many different opposing view points.

      Like Aubrey says below, I don’t typically have to force a parting of the ways because most of the time the parents understand that the professional relationship isn’t going to work and move on themselves. It is definitely a failure of trust (good phrase, Aubrey).

  3. I’ll add in my two cents as another physician and say that all the docs I know fully vaccinate their kids. Including flu vaccines every year. The year I was pregnant with my son was also the year of the infamous “swine flu” so I even had two flu shots that year. I wouldn’t necessarily kick someone out of my practice for not vaccinating but I Also see it as a failure of trust if they don’t.

  4. I find this topic very interesting as I am in the process of making this decision myself. I think it would be most beneficial to have some posts from a viewpoint of someone who does not vaccinate as well. This way it would truly be a well rounded, helpful discussion to someone who is in the middle of making this decision for their own family.

    • Thanks for reading, Kate! I thought about doing a back-and-forth series of guest posts, but the truth is that I’ve found Dr. McColl to be really reliable and I didn’t want to undercut his message. I also haven’t personally found someone who is equally educated and credible who is anti vaccination. Not that that person doesn’t exist, but I can vouch for Dr. McColl’s integrity in a really personal way and I don’t have that relationship with someone with an opposing viewpoint. There are lots of other places to find the anti vaccination viewpoint represented, but this little corner of the internet is mine so I wanted to share a side of the story that I’ve become passionate about.

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